A Psychologist’s Role in Crisis/Hostage Negotiations

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by Tabetha Cooper

            The author, Dr. Cooper, is a psychologist for a major metropolitan area and also the newest member of its hostage negotiation team.  It is 3:15 pm on a Friday and her team has been called out to a crisis situation.  The location is a residential area approximately three blocks from a middle school and a public library.  The only information that her teams has at this point in time is that the perpetrator is a 42-year-old male who has taken his wife, son and a family friend hostage. The perpetrator has already killed his next door neighbor and is threatening to kill everyone else in the house if his demands are not met.  His first demand is immunity from the murder he has already committed in exchange surrendering without bringing harm to anyone else.  His other demands are a case of beer and some fast food, as soon as possible.  He has stated that if his demands are not met that “something will happen.”
            Situations like this arise all the time.  It is the skillful work of police negotiation teams and consulting psychologists that defuse the situation.  There isn’t always a happy ending but the hard work of those on the negotiation teams aids in keeping the devastation to a minimum.  This paper is going to discuss the various roles that a police psychologist plays.  In addition, it is going to assess the previous scenario including incident classification, the mental state of the perpetrator, and the likelihood of the situation ending successfully within a given timeframe.  The author will also map out a plan of action based on her negotiating skills.
Useful Definitions
            To understand all of the information in this paper it may be useful to know the definitions the author is using for the various terms that she utilizes.  A law enforcement agency is the branch of the judicial system that employs police officers, administrators, and psychologists.  Those employed within the agency are the law enforcement personnel.  These people are the men and women that work on the street, oversee investigations, and are responsible for upholding the law and ensuring that the streets are safe for the general population.  A hostage situation is one in which a perpetrator holds one or more people against their will (Hatcher, et al., 1998, p. 455, pp. 1).  A barricade situation is when a suspect holds himself in captivity but does not hold hostages (Hatcher, et al., 1998, p. 455, pp. 1).  The term crisis/negotiation situation is when a perpetrator has either taken hostages or holds up within a location refusing to give himself up to the police, in which a negotiation team must become involved.
Roles of a Police Psychologist
            A police psychologist can play many roles within a law enforcement agency, but there are usually only four places they may fill during a crisis/negotiation situation.  A psychologist can either play the role of an advisor, an integrated team member, primary negotiator, or the primary controller.  The role that most psychologists play during crisis/negotiation situations is the role of the advisor.  The role begins before the incident occurs, continues throughout the incident, and is sustained even after the incident has come to a close.  The advisor helps to provide the training needed to law enforcement personnel before becoming involved in a crisis/negotiation situation.  They then move to become a consultant during the actual incident, providing a profile and a mental assessment of the perpetrator.  They can aid in determining what type of strategies that the primary negotiator should use while talking to the suspect.  The psychologist may also be useful in assessing the hostages to determine if there is a specific reason the suspect choose these hostages or if they appear to be behaving in a manner that is either beneficial or detrimental to the negotiation situation.  They could also help with witness interviews and in gathering information vital to the success of the negotiations. (Hatcher, et al. 1998, p. 464-467).  In addition, the advisor may offer support to both hostages and officers in dealing with stress after the incident is over (Kurke & Scrivner, 1995).
            When an agency uses a five person team for crisis/hostage negotiations, a police psychologist may become an integrated part of the negotiation team.  For the five person model there are only five people that are actively involved in the negotiation process.  In this model there is a primary negotiator, a secondary negotiator, an intelligence officer, a psychologist, and a tactical liaison.  All of these positions are important to a negotiation team and with this model the psychologist has a specific role to play.  The primary negotiator is the person who actually communicates with the hostage.  The secondary negotiator stays at the primary negotiator’s side for the duration of the negotiation and gives suggestions concerning tactics that may help advance the communication.  The intelligence officer is responsible for interviewing people and coming up with as much background information as possible in an attempt to supply information to the primary negotiator which may lead to a successful negotiation.  In this model, the psychologist is responsible for consulting with the primary and secondary negotiators; he or she will also provide profiles and mental assessments on the suspect(s) and hostage(s).  The last member in this model is the tactical liaison.  This person is responsible for tracking and recording events and maintaining contact with the command center and SWAT team (Hatcher, et al., 1998, p. 467 pp. 2).
            Another role that a psychologist may play is that of the primary negotiator, although it is rare and not advisable for a psychologist to play this role.  A very small percentage of law enforcement agencies utilize psychologists as their primary negotiator.  One reason that it is not advisable for a psychologist to act as the primary negotiator is that a perpetrator may have had a bad experience with a mental health professional.  Many perpetrators do not think that they have anything psychologically wrong with them and would become offended and more hostile if confronted by the psychologist.  In general, psychologists have very little experience working with the public and know little about “street” behaviors.  This makes it prudent for an officer that has experience working with the public to fill the role of the primary negotiator.  The last reason that it is not advisable for a psychologist to fill this role is because deception may need to be used to resolve the situation.  Because deception is unethical, many psychologists may not feel that deceiving the perpetrator is appropriate (Hatcher, et al. 1998, p. 467-468).
            The last and most uncommon role a psychologist can play is the role of primary controller.  The primary controller may have the responsibility of operational commander or just may oversee the negotiation team.  The person in this position manages the police officers and is responsible for making sure everyone follows policy procedures.  The main reason that this position is not assigned to many psychologists is that the person assigned to this role generally has had experience working within the government in addition to mental health.  The primary controller is expected to hold knowledge of police functions and continually participate in various types of training.  This role is also very political, which is why a psychologist should not perform this role unless they have experience within the agency, the government, and mental health arenas. (Hatcher, et al. 1998. P. 468-469).
Type of Incident
            During a crisis/negotiation situation the FBI recognizes only two types of incidents; those include hostage and non-hostage incidents (Noesner, 1999).  Although, many negotiation teams say that there are three main categories; hostage incident, barricade incident, and suicide attempt (Wind, 1995).  These three main categories can be broken down into four main types of offenders; mentally disturbed, criminals caught in the commission of a crime, rebelling prisoners, and politically motivated offenders (Butler, Leitenberg, & Fuselier, 1993). 
Utilizing all the categories offered, the situation that Dr. Cooper is involved with would fall under a hostage situation.  The FBI would not classify family members being held hostage as a hostage incident because the offender stands to lose more than his upper hand if he loses his family members (Noesner, 1999).  Although, in this situation the offender is also holding a family friend in the home as well; this causes this incident to cross the line into a hostage situation.  The offender would fall into the category of a criminal caught in the commission of a crime because the motivation for the hostage situation is the fact that he killed his neighbor.  He is attempting to get himself out of the situation through his hostages.  Although, because of his unreasonable demands, Dr. Cooper feels that the perpetrator could also fall under the category of a mentally disturbed offender.
Dr. Cooper’s expertise during this situation would better be utilized in the role of consultant.  The advice she could offer to the primary and secondary negotiators would be invaluable.  This would also leave Dr. Cooper open to do a complete mental assessment.  Since she would not be dealing directly with the offender, she would have time to collect outside information on the perpetrator.  She could also assess all communications that the negotiators have with the suspect, which could give valuable insight into the offender’s mental state.
Mental State Assessment
A psychologist can offer great insight into the mind of a troubled person.  They can identify different personality types, personality disorders, and the psychological motivations that person has for behaving in a certain way (Noesner, 1999).  They may not be able to offer a root cause for a behavior but, given enough time and information, they can often deduce what event or thought possessed a person to commit a certain act.  As mentioned above, in addition to being motivated to take hostages because of the murder he had committed, Dr. Cooper feels that the offender is also mentally disturbed.  He thinks that he can get away from the murder charge if he does not harm his hostages.  The other thing that makes Dr. Cooper feel like he is somewhat mentally disturbed is the fact that as another demand he asked for fast food and beer.  There are many other demands that could have been made but since the demand was for food, fast food in particular, Dr. Cooper believes he is on the edge of a psychotic break.  This psychotic break is probably stress induced.  The reasoning for killing the neighbor is still unknown, but the stress of trying to not go to jail over the murder is probably pretty intense. 
Time vs. a Successful Negotiation
Kurke and Scrivner (1995), stress that a successful negotiation requires time.  The team needs time to get positioned, find out information on the suspect, and figure out the best course of action for the situation.  Also, the more time that has elapsed the more tired the suspect is going to become.  This can have a positive or negative effect on the negotiation.  The suspect may get tired and start killing hostages or he may get fed up with the situation and turn himself in.  The key is to find a happy medium.
Kurke and Scrivner (1995), state that negotiations (no loss of life) have about a 99% success rate. Given an extended amount of time, the chance of a successful negotiation is outstanding.  Over a fifteen year span Chattanooga, Tn. had only three incidents that resulted in the death of the suspect.  When other teams deal with a hostage negotiation situation the chances of success drop drastically.  When a tactical team is responsible for the resolution the success rate drops to 78% and when that team uses scare tactics such as chemical weapons the success rate drops yet again to less than 50% (Kurke & Scrivner, 1995).
Plan of Action
For this situation, Dr. Cooper thinks that the first course of action is to get the area set up.  The tactical team should be put into place and made ready in case the situation warrants the use of force.  The command post should also be constructed.  Emergency services such as ambulances and fire trucks should be called to the scene.  The media crews that may have developed should be isolated to one area to ensure that they are out of the way.  After the phone lines have been set up the communication process should begin. Since the suspect is already demanding beer, it would be wise to ascertain if he has already been drinking or is under the influence of drugs.  The next step should be to gather as much intelligence as possible on the perpetrator.  If possible, information about the layout of the house would be beneficial; the suspect is in his own home so the police are at a disadvantage if the tactical team needs to be used.  The negotiators should then make it clear what demands are possible for them to accommodate and what demands will not be be met.  The key thing to remember is that the team should remain flexible in their attitude toward less onerous demands to lighten the blow when it comes to the demands that cannot be met.  A speedy, non-invasive solution is best, but if this can’t be accomplished the tactical team will need to enter the house to subdue the suspect in a way that minimizes the risk of the suspect harming himself or his hostages. (Kurke & Scrivner, 1995).
Dr. Cooper must be sure that she is available to tend to the needs of the police.  She should be sure that the media is kept up to date on the situation so that they do not become too antsy.  It would also be wise for her to participate in the amassing of information on the suspect and the hostages personally so she can be sure pertinent information is relayed to the officers.  Last but not least, she should be available for the negotiators to consult with her on various issues that may arise.
            Crisis/hostage negotiation is the art of diffusing dangerous situations while minimizing the risk of harm to suspects, hostages, and emergency personnel.  Psychologists can be instrumental in preparing for and carrying out sensitive operations and are an obvious addition to any team that must deal with agitated suspects in dangerous situations such as crisis and hostage negotiations.  Psychologists may train officers and negotiation teams prior to incidents, work with and advise them directly during negotiations, or work in the background to gather and analyze information on those involved.  Often, a psychologist’s work is not finished when the incident is over.  The particulars of the situation including the actions taken by the negotiations team and the end result of the crisis will be carefully documented and considered to help guide future teams to better results.  At the end of the day, psychologists are as much an integral part of crisis/hostage negotiations as they are of the law enforcement agency as a whole.  This relationship will only continue to grow as psychologists learn more about human behavior and agencies learn how to make better use of the skills and experience of their psychologists.

Butler Ph.D., W.M., Leitenberg Ph.D., H., & Fuselier Ph.D., G. D. (1993). The Use of Mental      Health Professional Consultants to Police Hostage Negotiation Teams. Behavioral             Sciences and Law, Vol. 11 213-221. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Retrieved from:             http://web.ebscohost.com.lib.kaplan.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=d3a5f0e0-0370- 4ccd-9ccc-f3def55c96f6%40sessionmgr104&vid=2&hid=122
Hatcher Ph.D., C., Mohandie Ph.D., K., Turner Ph.D., J., & Gelles Psy.D., M.G. (1998). The        Role of the Psychologist in Crisis/Hostage Negotiations. Behavioral Sciences and the   Law. Behav. Sci Law, 16, 455-472. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. San Francisco, Ca.          Retrieved from:              http://web.ebscohost.com.lib.kaplan.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=7ed49ec5-2b64- 496e-b25f-11906887037c%40sessionmgr112&vid=2&hid=122
Kurke, M. I., & Scrivner, E. M. (1995). Police Psychology into the 21st Century. Cengage             Learning. New York
Noesner, G. W. (1999). Negotiation Concepts for Commanders. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.             Retrieved from: http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/fbi/negot_cmdrs.pdf
Wind, B.A. (1995). Guide to Crisis Negotiations. Retrieved from:   http://www.lectlaw.com/files/cjs10.htm (This is a reliable source because his credentials            can be checked and he supplies a way to contact him).

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  1. A psychologist always becomes a very important part at crisis time of any country. It can suggest peoples and others also, he can know all the startgies of peoples. he can read the mind also very well. So, a psychologist always can play a healthy role for his country.
    Psychologist Australia

  2. I sent your articles links to all my contacts and they all adore it including me.Psychologist Robi Ludwig


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